Rome (AsiaNews) – The abduction of two other priests in Mosul highlights the plight of Iraq’s Christian community, caught between terrorism and religious persecution. Christians have fled Mosul and Baghdad for northern Iraq as a result of daily death threats and the constant danger of suicide bombers, but what they find is equally tragic and difficult to bear.
The Nineveh Plain and Iraqi Kurdistan have become the community’s last place of refuge but Christian villages are increasingly overcrowded, a situation which is creating social tensions and causing problems of coexistence among people whose main dream is just to go home.
Despite being targeted by terrorists and common criminals now more than ever, Christian Churches have continued their activities, albeit in a more limited way, “with great faith and certainty that a new Iraq will be born out of all this blood one day;” a hope Catholic sources in northern Iraq tell AsiaNews is “nurtured day after day by the sacrifice of Fr Ragheed Gani whose tomb is visited every Sunday by young and old alike, seeking the strength to go on.”
Some Iraqi Chaldeans living in Italy, recently back from a trip to Nineveh in Iraqi Kurdistan talked to AsiaNews about the tragedy of Christian refugees in the northern part of the country. They call on the universal Church not to forget this country.
Security on the brink in Kurdistan
Security is good in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. The government pays for upgrading housing and churches as well as for a local militia that mans checkpoints around Christian villages. But it all seems haphazard. Houses and schools are built here and there, and there are no hospitals.
Christians cannot buy government-built houses but must pay the authorities if they want to leave them. Sources report that among ordinary people many believe that however praiseworthy such initiatives are they seem to aim at luring Christian families northward in order to put in place the Nineveh Plans plan, which would especially benefit Kurds but which worries Christians since they would become a buffer zone between Kurds in the north and Sunni Arabs in the south. A proposal to that effect was presented to the US senate and is backed by Iraq’s Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani.
The ‘Kurdish Question’ is also creating tensions between Iraq and its neighbours. Turkish soldiers preparing for incursions and attack are visible from Iraqi border villages and Iran has already bombed targets within Iraq in the past few months.
Social problems in the north
Anyone arriving in Kurdistan would not know they were still in Iraq. Iraqi expatriates back in Italy told AsiaNews that only the Kurdish language is used. At the airport in Arbil if you ask for information in Arabic, they don’t answer even if they understand the language.
Integration is a problem. Internal refugees are called “displaced people” (DP) in government offices but especially in schools. Entire families are made to feel discriminated and twice humiliated after leaving everything behind to escape. In school students want to know why teachers do a roll call only for them by calling on DPs identify themselves. “Aren’t we all Iraqis?” they ask.
With a large influx of DPs the cost of living has skyrocketed in Kurdistan, but also throughout northern Iraq. In 2003 a full tank cost a dollar; now you can only buy a litre of gasoline. A kilo of tomatoes cost 25-30 cents; now it is almost a dollar. Rents have gone through the roof. Two rooms or event one room can cost 200-300 dollars. Families with seven or eight members who fled with only their shirts on their back cannot afford such prices, especially if adults are out of work. A breadwinner working on his own can make 300 dollars but a lowly white collar worker cannot make more than 200 dollars.
And that is not counting material problems like water which is available for a few hours every two days and is not drinkable without chlorine tablets to purify it, causing many cases of cholera.
Power is limited to two hours a day; when it is available for 10 hours it is cause for celebration with people shouting “there is light; there is light.”
With heat at 50 C in the shade and no air conditioning or refrigerators, food cannot be stored; infections break out and diseases spread, especially among children.
There are no health care facilities to speak of, except for a small hospital in Qaraqosh that has no instruments or drugs, and doctors who are targeted by terrorists and cannot work.
With no one in charge, the quality of education has dropped considerably and schools are left to fend for themselves.
“We live in utter terror,” said a young mother of three in Karamles, a town 10 km from Mosul. “People know that they are not safe even in Kurdistan. Even a peddler pushing a cart selling clothes or fruit under your window is seen as a potential suicide bomber. But we can’t stop going out even after the bombings in the Yazidi villages (August 14); we are just even more scared.”
The life of the Church
With an influx of Christians in the north and Kurdistan the local Church is facing greater difficulties. Although there are no exact figures about the number of Christians now living in the area, it is clear that current number of priest is insufficient. With the exodus most Chaldean institutions are now concentrated in Ankawa like the Faculty of Theology, Babel College, and the seminaries.
But life goes on. School has just started again in the area. Catechism, communions and marriages continue. In August in Arbil three Chaldean nuns took first vows and six other took perpetual vows.
Although greatly saddened by the barbaric murder on June 2 of Fr. Ragheed Gani and three of his subdeacons in Mosul, the “Christian community has found great strength in his death,” a local youth who visited the fallen Chaldean priest’s family told AsiaNews.
“His father and mother are suffering a lot but with great dignity. They have no more tears to shed. Now every Sunday you can see a crowd walking in procession with Ragheed’s parents to his tomb. It is a beautiful example of the legacy this priest left. He was a great role model to everyone, especially the young, and gave much courage to his fellow priests.”
“Iraqi Christians have great faith,” said another student, originally from Mosul. “But there are no words to instil hope. The only thing you can do is be with them, share their pain, and remind them that where there is death, there is resurrection.”
“We are happy about the pope’s Angelus appeal yesterday,” said eagerly an Iraqi nun. “Every time the pope talks about Iraq we feel relieved. Iraqi Christians just don’t want to be forgotten. They’d like to see representatives of the Church come and visit them; share some of their pain even if only for a short while.”
“I think that one day Iraq will be different,” said a Chaldean novice.” Our country does not have water but blood to irrigate the land and this blood cannot be shed in vane. I am convinced that it will nurture a new Iraq, better than the one we have now. One day.”
Relations with Muslims
Where the government is impotent to guarantee security to its citizens, neighbours give a helping hand. Many Muslim families have given shelter to their Christian friends from Baghdad at their own peril.
“Muslims appreciate our being different,” said a group of Iraqis contacted by AsiaNews. “They are aware that what they do not have—freely given love and forgiveness—they can learn from us. One of the Muslim mothers who registered their daughters in Christian-run schools told us this.”
Another example of the value of Christian witness goes back to Father Ragheed’s murder. A Muslim butcher was the first who tried to stop the attackers, imploring them not to kill the priests and his subdeacons because “they are men of peace.”